Rapid City native Jason Whittington has always loved the Black Hills. Upon graduating from South Dakota School of Mines & Technology with an Industrial Engineering degree in 2008, he landed a job with Sanmina-SCI, but a plant closure and lack of local opportunities forced him to relocate to Connecticut for work. He and his wife wanted to move back to Rapid City to raise a family; Jason was able to convince his employer to let him work remotely, but frequent travel between South Dakota and Connecticut was required. When a local position for a Senior Technical Engineer opened up with North Atlantic Industries, he jumped at the opportunity to put his skills to use and help the company's Surface Mount Technology (SMT) division start building products in-house. Jason was one of NAI's original three employees within the SMT group.
NAI designs and manufactures proprietary electronics. The company was formed in 1955 and has become a leading supplier of Commercial off-the Shelf (COTS) solutions for aerospace, defense, and commercial applications. They are responsible for everything from design and prototype builds to commercial production. They are responsible for everything from design and prototype builds to commercial production. Recent customer programs include high-profile applications such as NASA rockets, the Abrams Tank, Apache Helicopter, Predator Drone, and THAAD Missile Defense System.
NAI's South Dakota office is primarily responsible for determining how new products will be built in the factory back in New York. In practice, this role requires the Rapid City team to examine each new design and determine what sequence of factory processes are required to build the circuit board. Based on the production sequence, the team then programs the factory equipment remotely and creates work instructions to be used by the workers in New York. When manufacturing data is needed, the team provides custom reports using real-time databases connected to the factory floor in New York. Most recently, the Rapid City team also supported an effort to help the factory comply with new electronics regulations from the European Union that (among other areas) make electronics more environmentally friendly.
The company's decision to locate their office in the Ascent Innovation incubator has proven advantageous. "Ascent Innovation made it feasible for NAI to expand the role of my team," Jason says. Benefits of the space include ongoing support from Ascent Innovation staff and easy access to the SDSM&T student population, who fill a critical role in NAI's growth. The skills the interns gain from the internship allows them to advance their future engineering careers within NAI or future employers. It's a win-win for the company and the interns: NAI is able to work with talented interns, and the students are able to fit in a part-time work schedule due to the convenient on-campus location. Currently, there are three interns working with Jason. Most interns work for NAI anywhere from one to three years.
"Without Ascent Innovation, the South Dakota group would very likely just consist of me working from a home office," Jason says, “Instead, Rapid City has had a significant role at a growing technology company, while gaining local jobs and internships along the way.” Since opening their office in the incubator, NAI has employed a total of 11 different interns and two full-time employees. All have gone on to graduate from SD Universities. A few interns now work as engineers in Rapid City and multiple are working in SD. Jason considers this a strong testament to the many benefits Ascent Innovation offers in growing the local workforce.
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